UD Service Learning Scholars gain experience while giving back
William Paugh and Erin Lensky make a presentation long distance from Ireland while Matt Robinson, associate professor of sport management, moderates.
Lauren Van Hise and Shannon Whalen discuss their project, in which they worked with children with Asperger syndrome.
Kaleigh Schwalbe hopes to turn her service learning experience into a career as an attorney focusing on immigration issues.
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8:31 a.m., Aug. 18, 2009----For the service learning scholars at the University of Delaware, classroom learning met community service this summer, and on Friday, Aug. 14, the students shared their findings and insights with community partners, faculty sponsors, parents, and friends at the Service Learning Scholars Symposium in the Trabant University Center.

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The program enables highly motivated students to work in a community agency and simultaneously pursue academic reflection under the guidance of a UD faculty mentor. Some of the students carry out individual projects, while others work in pairs or teams of three. The 2009 program included 17 students working on 10 projects.

“Today we will see the result of 10 weeks of outreach and community-based research collaborations between University of Delaware students and faculty and their community partners,” said Lynnette Overby, professor of theatre and faculty director for Undergraduate Research and Service Learning, who welcomed the participants and audience to the event.

This year marked the program's fifth anniversary, and Overby presented coordinator Susan Serra with a plaque to recognize her contributions to the program over the past five years.

The Service Learning Program is open to students in all majors, and this year's contingent represented a number of health- and exercise-related disciplines as well as music, psychology, computer science, international relations, and English education.

While the students augment what they've learned in the classroom by gaining experience in skills that range from measuring energy expenditure during exercise to developing computer code and tracking immigration trends, they often learn far more about life itself.

Christine Kukich and Kerrigan Smith, who helped senior citizens learn how to use the Nintendo Wii to bowl and play tennis, discovered that they have more in common with people over 65 than they expected. And they knew that they had made a difference when a staff member commented that participants at the senior center were talking about the Wii when they came in this summer rather than asking what was for lunch.

For Lauren Van Hise and Shannon Whalen, whose project focused on increasing fitness levels in children with Asperger syndrome, photos provided a window into the minds and hearts of kids who may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. Pictures of dogs and computers, of friends and television sets, told the story of the things that motivate the kids to exercise and the things that stand in the way of physical activity.

Michelle Blom, who collaborated with Lyssa Morris and Mark Szaroleta on a project using the Nintendo Wiii with autistic adolescents, said, “We learned as much from them as they did from us.”

Psychology major Sarah Robins, whose project focused on the use of parent-child interaction therapy to decrease disruptive behavior in a group of low-income two- to seven-year-olds, shadowed therapists using the technique and was impressed with its effectiveness. But her enthusiasm was quickly dampened when she saw that the parents in the study population weren't following through with their homework, which required them to actively engage with their kids for five minutes a day.

“I just didn't get it until I read Nickel and Dimed,” Robins said. The book, whose full title is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is a first-person account by an undercover journalist of what it's like to live on minimum-wage jobs. “The stories really opened my eyes to a life of poverty,” Robins said, “and made me realize that we have to think about what it takes to provide treatment in society and not just in the lab.”

English education major Taria Pritchett is developing a series of workshops through a program called Operation CARE. Her goal is to increase the number of African American kids who pursue higher education by creating a college-going mentality among middle and high school students and providing them with the resources needed to get into college. “This program has inspired me to be more involved,” she said.

Tim McClory and Tim Walsh, both computer science majors, have been working with the Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) to deploy the XO laptops donated under the One Laptop Per Child Program. “Many of us have heard of the 'digital divide,'” said Walsh, referring to a term that describes the gap between those who have computer access and those who don't. “But there is also a 'didactic digital divide,' which refers to the phenomenon of computers being available without the education needed to use them.”

When Walsh and McClory arrived at CCCS, they discovered that 1,400 XOs were sitting on closet shelves in boxes because no one knew what to do with them. The two have since gained valuable experience in providing the school's faculty with tech support and its students with access to customized learning applications.

“Service learning is a valuable part of the University,” said Suzanne Burton, associate professor of music. “The whole community engagement aspect of the program is really great.”

Burton advised Shari Feldman, who worked on Project MUSIC, a collaboration that involves elementary school students, UD students and faculty, and professional musicians. “This program really combined my personal and professional goals,” Feldman said, “and I've learned a lot from Sue Serra about what's involved in running a non-profit.”

Erin Lensky and William Paugh, who are both majoring in sport management, spent their summer in Ireland and reported in to the symposium using Skype. The pair gained valuable management skills and intercultural experience working on a project to promote community integration through basketball. Similarly, physical education majors Michael Newell and Christina Yeatman gained career-enhancing skills in their project to implement a health and physical education curriculum in an urban summer youth program.

For some of the students, the summer projects provided valuable insight into future career choices. International relations major Kaleigh Schwalbe, an Honors Program student who investigated Latin-American immigration to the U.S., shared her plans to become an attorney focusing on immigration issues. Working with children who have Asperger syndrome solidified Shannon Whalen's intention to specialize in adaptive physical education.

Even Serra finds each year of the program to be a learning experience for her. “It always fascinates me to see what service means in different fields,” she said.

Community partners in this year's service learning projects were Basketball Ireland, Girls Inc., Latin American Community Center, Newark Senior Center, Howard Weston Senior Center, Sports Club for Children with Asperger Syndrome, Delaware Autism Program, UD Early Learning Center, Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, West Park Place Elementary School, Newark Symphony Orchestra, AVID, Brandywine School District, Cape Henlopen School District, Christina School District, and Chester Community Charter School.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photos by Evan Krape